The Surprisingly-Large Impact of Deciding Beforehand

This is something really interesting I’ve discovered recently that seems like it might generalize across impulsive and binge-prone behaviors.

I have a history of binging Internet video (especially YouTube) and computer games. Once I start engaging in one of these behaviors, it can quickly stop being about the enjoyment and more about avoiding the growing anxiety regarding my lack of self-control and my impending lack of sleep. I know I’ll feel terrible once I stop, so I keep going. A vicious cycle results.

I’d tried using do-less Beeminder goals in the past, but they really didn’t work. I’d find myself resenting the goals and paying the money to continue my binge and for the privilege of scheduling the goals to be archived.

Recently I decided to take another shot at the do-less goals, but with one small change for a totally unrelated reason:

I’d decide before engaging in the behavior how long I’d spend, and then set a timer for that amount of time.

The reason for this change was not because I thought it would have a large impact on my behavior, but rather because I’m terrible at remembering my count-up timers. Thus using count-down timers adds an alarm which reminds me the timer is still going, and I can either stop or create a new timer if I wish to keep going. (Thanks to @phi for the inspiration for this change!)

What I’ve found, however, is just the simple rule that I decide beforehand how much time I’ll spend on an activity has a huge effect on my behavior from the very start:

  • The decision adds a small amount of friction which forces me to be conscious about what I’m deciding to do.
  • I find the decision results in me being much more discerning in what types of things I watch or play. (Do I really want to spend 30 minutes playing a game I don’t even like?)
  • Many times, when the only motivation for doing the activity is escape or cravings, having to make this decision requires enough effort that I don’t end up engaging in the activity at all.

I really did not expect that this tiny rule would have such a big impact. Have any of you experienced something similar? What are your theories as to why this has such a large effect?


I am glad this works for you! My experience with “Alright, 30 minutes of Factorio won’t hurt nobody” always was “ok just a few more minutes”… You can do the math how that eventually turned out :wink:

I recently set a “no more than 3hrs all distracting time” goal using RescueTime and Beeminder and that does the trick for me. It’s not perfect, mainly because there’s no real RescueTime for iOS and… then I spend forever in the restroom watching YouTube. But it’s so much better than the “just one more level” / “few more minutes” thing my brain would do when using a timer. I really put the Pro in Procrastination.


I wouldn’t be surprised if the most important part of this was the added friction.

The moment continuing to binge is less automatic and more of a conscious decision, the more you have the chance that your “more logical” part of yourself takes over :slight_smile:




lol Yeah, I hear you. I’ve experienced that, too. But, for some reason, having decided the amount of time beforehand and set a timer for that duration seems to be enough to prevent the slippery slope of “just 10 more minutes,” at least so far. Have you tried the explicit timer part? I’d be interested to know if it would make a difference for you.

I think you’re right about this. It really feels like the impulsive part of me just can’t get past the “Oh, but now I have to stop and make a plan” step. Maybe the two modes (impulsive self vs planning self) are somewhat incompatible?

That’s a really great article! Very relevant indeed. Thanks for sharing!


Yes, that’s the general (Nobel prize winning) idea


Oh yeah! Without a timer it’s just completely hopeless. Especially since I got no clock in my living room but rely on my computer’s clock which is of course not visible when playing games. I meant to put a clock on the wall for that very reason but… /sighs/ OK. I ordered one.
But back to the timer: I’d tell my phone to alarm in 30 minutes. And it did. And I discovered the snooze button. End of story.

Pomodoros do work for me though and in the 5 minute break I like to fire up this little game called Contraption Maker where you make a Rube Goldberg machine to solve some puzzle and that fits into 5 minutes and is fun and engaging but also not binge-y.
Whereas when I open some instant messenger or YouTube I immediately get sucked into it and then feel sad when the 5 minute timer is over.


That’s brilliant, and I immediately stopped reading, grabbed my egg timer, and set it for 5 minutes! I’m looking forward to seeing if this idea will help with my own struggles with the internet binge sleep-avoidance cycle (for me, it’s made worse by the fact that the more tired I am, the less executive functioning I have).


Looking forward to hear how it goes for you! I like the egg timer idea. I’ve been using a timer on my phone, but getting to it does create some friction. But maybe that’s a feature?

I tried this today, again and the 5 minutes turned into 30 minutes. I’m glad this works for you but I’m a lost cause :smiley: I’d need something that would turn off my router if I went much over the time limit. Or shutdown the computer. Or throttle my internet connection to 56k for an hour or something like that. Yeah… There’s an idea.

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I haven’t been using this for anything less than 30 minutes. Maybe that makes it more viable? I don’t know… Also, if my do-less goal allows, I’ve been pretty free with setting another timer if I want to keep going. So it’s more about staying in control and not starting a binge cycle for me than it is about restricting my time directly…


Hey @narthur,

I see you posted this back in Feb and I think it’s a very interesting idea.

Has deciding in advance how much time to spend continued to work for you? I’m a bit worried that this approach might take a lot of willpower.


Good question! The way I’ve done things has morphed quite a bit since then, so I’m no longer deciding beforehand, but it’s not because it stopped working for me. I still have it in the back of my mind to go back to doing this.

It seems like different people have different experiences with this technique. If you decide to try it, I’d love to hear how it goes for you.

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What’s your current approach? What’s working for you these days?

I just discovered Factorio on Saturday, following the official release. And the rest of the weekend was a blur. :slight_smile: I’d like to be able to keep playing without it getting out of hand, so I’ll be trying out a RescueTime goal.


Oh boy I have sunk way too much time into Factorio :smiley: After you played through Factorio be sure to check out Satisfactory:

We should play together!

I even implemented a simple wavelet transformation with the combinators in Factorio. It’s not a true transformation because Factorio doesn’t have floating point arithmetic but I might try again with a lifting scheme because that works with integers alone.


Does any use something like this for “starting (positive) activities” as well? I do that and it’s quite helpful, let me describe how and I’ll ask for ideas on one point.

I have some goals that I track with two Beeminder-goals: One for the time I spend (a minimal commitment, M minutes/day) and one for the daily engagement (D days/week). I use this* set up for trying out habits for some period. In the early phases of such goals, I do set a timer for M minutes when I sit down to it.

When I’m enjoying the activity, I’ll repeat the timer. I’ll be thinking “I’ll count the timers and add the data point later.” But of course, I forget the count since I’m engaged with the activity. I tried to solve this for instance, by using a scrap paper on my desk. I always ended up with too much friction.

I think a Pomodoro app with a flexible timer and some kind of tagging feature might help me. @phi do you perhaps have a suggestion for iOS? I’m also happy to consider a completely different approach to such goals, if anyone has an idea :slight_smile:

* Do we have a name to refer to this kind of setup? I get tired of describing it over and over again. :grimacing:

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The pomodoro style app that annoyed me the least was Be Focused. But it’s still annoying. The sync is glitchy as hell and just destroys your logged data for that day on a regular basis.
But it does let you log pomodoros for different categories and it shows you a history of when you did what long a session and it lets you change basically everything. The mac (I think) app also lets you export everything as CSV which I used once to dump it into Beeminder.
So, this isn’t an endorsement by any means, but here goes: